Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) was filmed during World War II and takes place in the early period of the Nazi occupation of Poland, yet it focuses on the story of a theater group, on actors, and on the metaphysical question of what makes up a convincing performance. Some early critics suggested that this was not the way to tackle a dire political situation, and that the portrayal of Nazis as humans, with their own sense of humor and theater, was disrespectful to the plight of the Poles and Polish Jewry. For the film, however, the political action and the tracing of the philosophical implications of a theatrical performance are not alternative procedures, but are closely linked to one another, and in this respect Lubitsch follows Shakespeare's own staging of power. The article pursues this argument, firstly, in the analysis of the series of Shylock monologues in the film (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”), focusing on the hyper-theatricality of each repetition. Secondly, it analyzes the series of encounters between two main characters, the Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt and the Polish actor Joseph Tura, especially their last encounter. The author compares the encounter between Ehrhardt and Tura to the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet and argues that it functions as the primal scene—in the Freudian meaning of the term—of the film as such. Their encounter is comical, yet at the same time both politically and metaphysically completely serious: The film shows us two visions of Hamlet, and with that, two visions of modernity, embodied in a Nazi colonel and a Polish actor. The film seems to suggest that there is no defeating Nazism without a thorough understanding of the theatricality of power as such—a Shakespearean lesson that is vital also for our contemporary moment.

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